Combat Stress has revealed there has been a big increase in veterans seeking mental health treatment. Ann Chadwick talked to one ex-soldier who faced life on the streets after suffering a breakdown who was given a new lease of life by another North-East charity.

Lenny Szrama joined the Army aged 17, and left 14 years later aged 31.

A tank crewman, he grew up in a military family.

“My father was in the forces,” he say, “I wanted to study art and drama when I left school but I went for my parents’ option instead and joined the army. I did enjoy it but some incidents left me a bit traumatised.”

For Lenny, now 48 and living in Catterick, the suicide of his room-mate changed everything.

“He dismounted a machine gun from a tank and shot himself in the head. I was so young at the time, it really affected me.”

It wasn’t until he left the military, life began to unravel. He’d been posted in Germany and stayed, working as a truck driver.

“It was a lot harder than my wife and I thought. When you’re out of the army and haven’t got that support structure, it’s isolating with no friends or family. We stuck it five years then came back to get closer to our own families.”

“All along I was suffering from depression caused by these incidents. I didn’t realise how it affected my wife as I was absorbed in my own problems. We split up by the time we came back to the UK.”

Lenny moved to Durham, then Newcastle working in sales. In 2002, he had a career change and moved into community development in the North-East. He met his new wife, but that too ended badly after he suffered a nervous breakdown and was removed from his home by police.

“Someone in the mental health unit at Gateshead Hospital had heard of SPACES and got them to call me,” recalls Lenny.

SPACES, the Single Persons Accommodation Centre for the Ex-Services, is run by housing association Riverside-ECHG. Riverside’s national helpline has, since it took its first call from a struggling homeless veteran in 2000, helped 12,000 ex-servicemen and women find housing.

Riverside’s award-winning network of veterans services has been developed by staff who themselves have served in the armed forces.

Veterans support organisation, The Forces in Mind Trust, estimate the cost of helping ex-servicemen and women who have problems adapting to civilian life will rise to £122m a year. Alcohol misuse has the biggest effect, followed by mental health issues, unemployment, family breakdown and homelessness.

Riverside has two supported housing schemes for veterans The Beacon next to Catterick Garrison and Mike Jackons House in Aldershot.

Facilities at The Beacon include a PC training suite, audio visual room, training kitchen and bakery, health resource facility, a training, education and employment centre, and areas designed for activities and socialising.

Lenny said: “At The Beacon I revisited my passion growing up – art, poetry, painting. It’s been useful as a therapy and still is. In art some of the guys who didn’t want to talk about trauma could paint things quite graphically.”

Lesley Swales, one of three support workers at the Beacon, says: “Veterans face things we run away from,” Lesley said. “For them to turn around and say they’re not coping is extremely difficult. They’re in a vulnerable state asking for help, that’s not an easy thing to do.”

“The difficulty with PTSD is you don’t see it.”

Lenny says the Beacon gave me space and time to get back on his feet.

“Before that I’d had depression, anxiety and PTSD for so long, I’d have a problem at work, go off sick, go back to work, go off sick. I was stuck in a cycle. Being made homeless and living at the Beacon drew a line under it and made me restart.”

The team helped with his application for disability living allowance and registered Lenny with a doctor and therapist.

Lenny is now living independently in a council flat.

“I still have panic attacks and withdraw from people sometimes, but the Beacon has been a massive help. It plays a really big role and I have good friends out of it. It’s like anything; you get out of it what you put in.”

Out of the 63 veterans Lesley has worked with in the past year, 77 per cent have gone into work.

Lesley says her job is one she loves because when ex-soldiers leave The Beacon “they look different, they stand taller.”